JEDDAH: Like most media frenzies, the one surrounding US President Joe Biden’s “historic first direct flight” from Tel Aviv to Jeddah was received with much fanfare at first but — at least among Saudi journalists — it quickly turned out to be a case of much ado about nothing.
It all began with Biden’s statement in an oped in the Washington Post on July 9, before he embarked on his Middle East trip, announcing that “on Friday, I will be the first president to fly from Israel to Jiddah (sic), Saudi Arabia.”
Many in the US and Israeli news media quickly latched on to the phrase as further proof that “normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel” was around the corner, a perennial rumor that has taken on a life of its own.
A follow-up announcement by the White House on July 15 fed into the narrative, by quoting the president as saying: “Today, I will be the first president to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.”
While the statement was accurate in the sense that no previous US president had undertaken a direct flight from Israel to Jeddah, Biden was definitely not the first to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.
Many began to question the limited memory of US and Israeli journalists, who seemed to have ignored or forgotten the fact that it was only as recently as 2008 that another president flew directly to the Kingdom from Israel, albeit to the capital Riyadh, not to the coastal city of Jeddah.
Indeed, the last president to have taken a direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia was George W. Bush, who traveled from Tel Aviv in May 2008, the last year of his second term.
According to media accounts of that trip, when Air Force One landed in the Saudi capital, Bush received a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac, and was warmly greeted by Saudi leaders as a military band played the US national anthem.
The Bush White House said the visit was intended in part to celebrate 75 years of formal US-Saudi relations, but the high price of oil ($127 a barrel) was also a factor. Soaring energy costs were proving to be a political headache for the president and a major drain on the US economy, which was experiencing a slowdown that presaged a major recession.
Fourteen years after that visit, another US president claimed he had made history with a direct flight, but this one was in the opposite direction. Donald Trump’s Air Force One took off from Riyadh for Tel Aviv in May 2017 as part of his first trip abroad since taking office.
Another five years on, it was the turn of a Democrat to boast he had been on a “historic first direct flight” between Israel and a Saudi city.
Several Saudi journalists who covered Biden’s recent visit said that they are unsure why this flight was the subject of so much excitement.
“If it is a tour involving two countries, the first being Israel and the second Saudi Arabia, how else was Biden going to fly in?” asked one reporter.
“As for the insinuation by the Western media that this was a step closer to normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, this is not true because this is not the first time such a flight happened. But, more importantly, it is dwarfed by the Arab Peace Initiative,” said a local newspaper editor, citing the Saudi peace proposal to Israel which was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut in 2002.
One thing remains certain, though: Every visit by a US president to Saudi Arabia has proven to be historic, one way or another.